Author's note: Have a question for a future Mailbag? Tweet it to @gopherstate and he may answer it.
The leaves turn colors, polls are in the air, photos of players are being photoshopped to count down days - ladies and gentlemen, the college hockey season is nearly upon us.
All the telltale signs say that the pieces are in place for raise the curtain on 2014-15's three act play on ice. In fact, these words are being written on a bus on my way out of Detroit following Big Ten Media Day. Having been on the other side of that, it's one more step in the ongoing countdown to opening night. Time is getting closer and closer although we're still working our way through forwards en route to defensemen and the goalie wearing #1.
And with a new season comes resolutions. A chance to learn from mistakes that comes with the new year, one which comes in late September (for our Jewish readers, an actual New Year). So besides the obvious be more punctual with Mailbags and features, the following are my new season resolutions:
1. Give the ECAC the benefit of the doubt
Maybe it's history, maybe it's being a Westerner. Maybe it's the fact many of the questions I get are from fellow Westerners. Looking back at last season, one thing I noticed was that I would still be holding back with ECAC teams when we did our SBN Power Rankings. That's despite an all-ECAC championship the year before, despite Colgate coming into Mariucci and holding serve with the top two teams in the country (at the time), seeing Union against St. Cloud State and the Dutchmen's undefeated stretch run to the title.
For this year you've earned the benefit of the doubt ECAC.
2. Slow down the tweeting overuse of "____ in Big Ten history"
It's getting old. There are always other bits to run into the ground. Along the same lines: cawlidge hawkey.
3. Use advanced stats when applicable.
While I may not be Mike Rogers when it comes to advanced stats and analysis, there are opportunities to use them and see things in a different light.
4. Travel more
Beautiful barns and arenas in picturesque college hockey towns paint the landscape throughout the nation. Sometimes seeing the pictures and stories SB Nation College Hockey colleagues tell makes me want to visit new locations. Apparently some have things called Dunkin Donuts on every corner. Being able to see some more whether it is a Minnesota road trip or a chance to go to an unknown land is something I'd love to do this year.
5. Tell stories.
At the end of the day we're here to write about college hockey. There are many great individuals and teams with stories to tell. Some are over hyped. Some under-appreciated. My goal is to find the best and let those shine on their own merits.
Of course, there's always the opportunity to forget about all since these are resolutions. Nothing is binding. I'd be running a vastly unprepared marathon in a couple weeks if resolutions were law.
What are your resolutions? I want to know. Leave them in the comments.
Onto the Mailbag...
@gopherstate Best NCAAteam inMN?Last2yrs:SCSU&UM have 2conf titles,2NCAA appearances,1FFappearance.U madeFinal.SCSU had HobeyWinner&HatTrick— Jeremy Larson (@jclarson02) September 19, 2014
Both teams have been among college hockey's best lately. All the accolades named show the quality of talent and coaching coming out of Minnesota.This question doesn't include Minnesota State, which was just named the WCHA preseason favorite coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance, UMD, which holds the last men's national championship out of the 5 D1 schools, or the Gopher women's hockey team, who hands down runs away with the best NCAA team in MN moniker.
There is a lot to like between the Gophers and St. Cloud State to the point where it's close enough between the two that sharing the last MacNaughton Cup both were eligible to win is fitting. Both schools have lately made banner raising an event to which you can set your watch.
Bob Motzko has the Huskies playing consistently at the program's highest. SCSU's individual honors- Drew LeBlanc's 2013 Hobey Baker award and Nic Dowd filling out Johnny Hockey's coronation last year - trump Minnesota's Big Ten sweep last year. Minnesota's final appearance and consecutive #1 NCAA Tournament seeds speak more highly to the team aspect of hockey. The number of Big Ten teams looking to use the Gophers and its depth as a template of success outnumbers the ones who aren't.
If we're just going between Minnesota and St. Cloud State over the last two seasons, however, I tend to lean towards the Gophers for one simple reason. Head-to-head. Minnesota went 3-1 over the last 2 years against St. Cloud State, including a 4-0 shutout in the NCAA West Regional Final. None of those games were at Mariucci.
As far as this year goes, since St. Cloud State isn't in this year's North Star College Cup, maybe the Huskies can play Minnesota for another one over Minnesota in-state rights when the two play Halloween weekend. DQ can sponsor.
Preseason predictions can be a good reference point to begin the year. Each of the 59 teams has a clean slate. Everyone is tied together by an expert knot in the Pairwise, at least until this weekend when a few Michigan schools break free.
The polls are not an exact science, though. More than anything where a team ends up on a preseason prediction poll is a better indication of expectations (or that writers, fans players and coaches are not clairvoyant) so that always leaves a few surprises.
Union won a national championship last season after beginning the year ranked 16th in the opening USCHO poll. Second-ranked Miami finished last in the NCHC. Expectations do not see such things as injuries happening. A couple teams outside the top 12 that in my opinion can make some noise (besides the entire ECAC, which can all do so): Minnesota-Duluth if the Bulldogs can find goaltending. Boston University has some unproven talent that can go far. Michigan Tech intrigues me. Any Atlantic Hockey team that isn't Mercyhurst or Robert Morris.
@gopherstate Do the Gophers need to win the National Championships for this to be a successful season to most of their fans?— Andy York (@yorka1982) September 19, 2014
Or for the Gopher fans reading this and not waiting until April to claim superiority/call for the head coach's head (this can be said of any team), expectations for a successful season should not be natty title or bust. Don Lucia's team should be expected to reach the tournament. It shouldn't be for any team. Ever.
Minnesota, returning the best team since....well Minnesota two seasons ago or Boston College in 2011-12, is the consensus choice to return to the Frozen Four in Boston. There are many reasons for that. The depth coming back is outstanding for a team that didn't rely on a single superstar. Adam Wilcox is one of the top NCAA goalies. Mike Reilly, Ben Marshall and Brady Skjei have comfortably stepped up to lead a top-tier blue line. Every one is a year older, a year wiser.
On the other hand, being the consensus top team hasn't always meant . Of the last nine teams to be #1 in the USCHO poll, 3 missed the NCAA Tournament. None have won a national title.
Minnesota should be expected to reach the tournament. That's one thing. Failing there is just that. Having "all or nothing" expectations to be the best in Boston is another.
It's a tough position to be in - the team with a target on its back - and even tougher when you consider the difficulties of winning a national championship in college hockey. A team has to stay relatively healthy, play well together and get hot at the right time. Throw in the parity that we've seen over the last decade and there is no guarantee the best team wins the top prize. All it takes is one off night.
The program's sixth national title remains THE goal, but is not the only one. A season of success isn't decided over four single elimination games although it does help make a difference in the way a final exam does. Where it ends sets the tone. It's a last chance to make something. The year is a success if Minnesota can take home one of the major three titles it plays for (NCAA, Big Ten regular season, Big Ten championship) over the entire season. Having an eye on a single makes the other five months pointless regardless of how it turns out.
@gopherstate Which player in the Big 10 is most likely to have a bounceback year and why is it Boo Nieves?— Adam Herman (@Herman_NYRBlog) September 18, 2014
It's Nieves because there aren't too many other choices in a six team conference where one came in with unknown expectations to truly say a bounceback year is possible.
If not the Michgian junior forward, there is Ohio State's Tanner Fritz, who came on strong at the end of last season, led the CCHA (RIP) in points during 2011-12 and will be counted on in the wake of Ryan Dzingel and Max McCormick's departures. Michigan State's Matt Berry is another. There are also a few different Badgers who can step up to contribute and Steve Racine if he can play more. Even with these, many are due to injuries (Berry missed half the season) or expectations. Fritz's "down year" last season still saw him scoring at a PPG pace.
No one fell further last season than Boo, whose 3 goals as a sophomore a year were less than half the 8 he had as a freshman. To truly bounce back you have to fall first. Nieves has. More importantly, he is capable of bouncing back.
@gopherstate Blake Coleman & Blake Pietila: what should people expect from both players this year?— John Fischer (@JKFischer) September 19, 2014
Good offensive production while flying under the radar either because of teammates or location. Okay maybe Coleman gets a little more respect after how Miami fared last season without him. He's earned that Czarnik and Barber-level recognition. 19 goals in 27 games, which makes him the second highest returning player in terms of goals per game (behind Robert Morris' Cody Wydo), is nothing to sneer.
@gopherstate Why does everyone think Wisconsin is going to be good? They lost a lot of scoring and talent from last year's team.— Chad Stevermer (@stretch3281) September 29, 2014
Mike Eaves has earned the benefit of the doubt? Name value helps in an area where several teams have question marks? Realistically it doesn't look like anyone has the Badgers as the top-four team that it finished last season after losing 70% (239 points) of the team's scoring.When I did the SB Nation Big Ten poll, the general consensus seems to think Wisconsin is closer to fourth place this season than second. Other people have them closer to the top ten nationally, which tells you that there is a lot unknown about the Badgers this season besides having one of the top goalies in senior Joel Rumpel.
That places an importance on the freshmen class coming in, contributing right away to help out an always tough Badgers blue line. According to Rumpel, that group has already made themselves known on the team.
@gopherstate who will win the Hobey Baker and why is it Devin Shore?— Josh Lile (@JoshL1220) September 19, 2014
Why Devin Shore? Because in the age of #fancystats the Hobey Baker needs to go to a fancy name like Devin. Because Johnny P. Hockey, Esq. left for the NHL. Because he's one of the top forwards in the country.
Shore, who was named to the Hockey East first team last season, has the talent and points totals to give a run for the Hobey Baker after leading Maine with 43 points (14G-29A) in 35 games. He was the Black Bears' difference maker several times as a sophomore. He has multiple ways to beat goalies and is only now an upperclassman.
Do I think Shore wins? That's tough. I think he can be in the conversation, but there are several other top-end players who are going to be on top teams. Maine has to do better than the predicted ninth place Hockey East finish if he's going to keep Hobey in New England.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate